Writing American Cultures, Jack Sukimoto – “JA/LA” pg. 94, bottom half:
“Most of the Japanese restaurants look to be pretty busy, and I wonder how authentic they are. My cousin said, ‘Seems like a lot of white people like salt and non-subtle foods.’ He was talking about how Sawtelle Boulevard has gotten increasingly expensive and the food increasingly less authentic.
What’s happening? Gentrification. The cost of living in the area is bringing more non-Japanese-Americans in and pushing JA’s out, and if places want to stay in business they have to cater to everyone. Since Little Tokyo has become a place tourists frequent, I can’t help assuming that things may be less authentic. But then again, that ramen sure was good. That brings up the question of what is authentic to a culture. At what point do we decide –or have the right to decide– what isn’t authentic anymore? And does it even matter whether something is Japanese or Japanese-American? I think there should be a distinction, though I’m not quite sure why.”
One reason that this passage felt inviting to my interpretation is that the author has yet to solidify his own. Another is that this topic is exactly the one that has been on my mind for a year or so. I eat a lot of Thai-American and some Japanese-American food. I think it tastes incredible, there’s so much to variety to choose from and opportunities for customization of nutrition and flavor, it’s affordable, commonly available and filling. For these reasons, and not to mention because of the main ingredients of the dishes, it is the absolutely perfect thing for vegans. After eating the dishes so many times they’ve become solidified in my mind as an accurate reproduction of what Thai food is because, of course, it’s all I know. Without anything to compare it to I have no way of knowing how “Americanized” it is or isn’t. Hearing similar questions asked by this author gave me a great opportunity to explore it a little. I decided to do a hands-on experiment to come up with pieces of an answer to “What is authentic?” I got two kinds of a Japanese dessert called “mochi.” One from Trader Joe’s and one from an “authentic” Asian-owned and -operated grocery. They are relatively different in flavor and texture, but they’re both based on the same basic invention and similar enough to share a name. The Trader Joe’s one is ice-cream mochi, a real thing in Japan, not made-up by us. The Asian-grocery is the other kind, a non-frozen, slightly more savory kind. Both were green tea flavored. I gave a piece of each, without identification of vendor, to three students and let them taste. I should mention some factors were too complicated to control and were left up in the air; whether the students had eaten mochi (ice cream or otherwise) before, along with the fact that the Asian-grocery actually sold the Trader Joe’s mochi as well. However, the later one was helpful for highlighting the indeterminability of authenticity. I asked the students to guess which one they thought was sold at the Asian-store and they were all correct in guessing the dry, savory one (please forget, for the moment, that the ice-cream one is also sold there). I could say a lot more about what you would maybe call “findings” from the discussion, but there’s really just one takeaway that helps me in my quest to answer this question. That is that foods that we think are more authentic and less Americanized are foods that just taste sort of weird and unfamiliar. The underlying assumption is that we usually don’t get served food that is too distant from the relatively small selection of flavors that we enjoy, and that might go for any culture or country.